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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everybody Has a Story: Students and teacher learn from assignment

By David Moss, Rose Village
Published: May 11, 2024, 5:45am

In the 1980s, I taught social studies in a small school for seventh through 12th grades in Northern California on the Oregon border. One of my classes was an eighth grade survey course that introduced basic concepts of the social sciences — government, history, economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, religion, philosophy.

This class was right before lunch, and since the attention span of middle school kids is notoriously short any time of day, the more variety in my lessons, the better. We did group projects, short essays and oral presentations. It was a lot of work for me, but it was also a lot of fun for all of us.

I ended the year with a combination assignment: a report, both oral and written, pre-approved by me, on pretty much anything we had covered, with a great deal of latitude. I gave them one month.

One of my students was a girl from one of the local Native American tribes. She came to class on time, every day, and always sat in the back. She paid attention but never spoke, never participated, never did any assignments. When I asked why, she would just shrug. Other teachers said she was the same in their classes.

But when I made my end-of-year assignment, she approached me after class and said she would do something but wouldn’t be able to tell me what.

What could I say? I had never heard her voice before, not to mention seen any of her work. So I said, “Sure.”

The last week of class was five-minute oral reports. One by one, students turned in written reports and then made presentations to the class. They used maps, charts and signs. It was a satisfying culmination of the year, and the kids were attentive and respectful.

Then we came to the last day. The girl who never spoke came to class with a large cloth bag. She said she would need to go to the bathroom before her report. She would do her presentation at the end of class and would need about 15 minutes. That was longer than any of the other reports, but plenty of time was available.

She left the room. No one paid any attention. She was such an unknown entity.

She returned in full ceremonial regalia. She walked to the front of the class. For 15 riveting, mesmerizing minutes, she talked about her deerskin robe, her headdress and the significance of every bead, feather and design. She talked about legends, ancestors and her hopes for herself and her tribe’s future. She was articulate, thorough and serious. She covered every one of the social sciences.

The bell rang before she was done, but no one left. These were hungry eighth graders at lunchtime. They all just sat there. Eventually she sat down at the front of the room — no smiles, no bows, nothing but a solid expression of pride.

She was the last to leave. She looked at me and said, “Thank you.”

One conundrum teachers face is grading. How do you decide what is an A and what is a B? Unless every assignment is black and white, the process is necessarily subjective. You set the norms, tell kids what will go into determining their grades, and off you go. Some tests and assignments are more important and take more work than others. Usually, it’s pretty easy to decide.

Over the years I embraced open-book tests, essays and oral reports. I wanted my students not just to regurgitate but to understand. Sometimes I would ask the kids themselves what grade they thought they deserved and why. Their assessments were usually the same as mine.

The one thing kids couldn’t factor in was what I knew about them outside of class — what personal issues might affect their performance. Should I consider out-of-class stuff, or base grades only on what they did or did not do in class? As my career evolved, I became much more holistic about grading, leaving me open to charges of unfairness, bias and favoritism. The final decision was always mine, and I always gave it a lot of thought. And I lived with it. Sometimes I had to justify it to the kid or the kid’s parents. Those were difficult conversations.

For all previous grading periods, I had marked “F” on my silent student’s report card. She had never turned anything in, never spoken, never written a single answer on any test. Yes, she came to class every day, watched and listened, never disrupted, never slept on her desk.

But she only did one assignment, all year. Did she learn anything in my class? Maybe. Does any student? We always hope so, and sometimes we find out, especially when we encounter a former student who says, “I really liked your class.” Teachers may not get paid a lot, but they live for comments like that.

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California law gave me the power to change any grade I had given, so I did. I went back and changed all her previous report card grades to “Incomplete” and then entered her final grade: “A.”

Did I do that because she was Native American? Because I knew how unjustly her tribe and all Native American tribes had been treated since 1492? Would I have done that for a non-Native student? I don’t know. In 21 years in the classroom, I never encountered another student remotely like her.

She didn’t come back for ninth grade. I never saw her again. I don’t know if she ever got her report card or if she even cared. Grades aren’t everything. Grades don’t necessarily mean that you really learned anything. I hope the other students in that class that day learned something. I certainly did, and it wasn’t about beads, feathers and designs on a deerskin robe.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.